One of the first idiotic articles I wrote online previewed a revival screening of Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 classic City Lights. In said article, I pontificated that City Lights is one of the films that shows why Chaplin became an immortal figure in cinema. Of course, missing from my piece was information that would substantiate this claim.
I hope to correct this in this edition of Double Features, my world-renowned series where I attempt to cover two films that share some sort of commonality. I will focus on two other iconic works by Chaplin: his first full-length feature, The Kid; and Modern Times, which marked the last appearance of his alter ego, The Little Tramp. In writing about these works, I’ll hopefully zero in on what qualities make them so special and why they helped canonize their creator. There is, however, always the chance that I’ll screw this article up, and in which case nothing of substance will occur.
The Kid (1921)
Clocking in at just under an hour, Chaplin’s The Kid is a slim and effective piece of work that features the first on-screen appearance of Jackie Coogan (as the titular little human). Promising to be a “picture with a smile and — perhaps a tear,” The Kid actually functions as the inverse of that statement. Following The Little Tramp as he is saddled with the care of a abandoned infant (played later on as a five year old by Coogan), The Kid airs far more on the side of pathos than it does comedy.
The two tonal sides of The Kid (which was written, directed and scored by Chaplin) are blended together perfectly. More specifically, the film showcases how Chaplin had a preternatural ability in using comedy as a gradual catalyst for drama, to broach material about the human tragedy intrinsic to 1920’s urban life.
Its early scenes revolve around the daily life of Coogan and Chaplin’s characters, and they are utterly charming, illustrating a potent, paternal love. They are also, thankfully, unsentimental in tone. Like the best Tramp moments, Chaplin’s iconic character in The Kid is hardly an idealistic portrait of a father, something shown in his willingness to involve his adopted kid in his schemes (the tot is shown breaking windows that the Tramp will then offer to repair) or cheer him on in neighborhood brawls. This lack of sanctimony is what makes the pairing so endearing. It seems realistic and is quite humorous. Coogen’s performance is another element that contributes to this, refuting the notion that films have a death wish if they employ children or animals (Chaplin’s often did both). These positives help make the film’s conclusion – where state-sponsored entities attempt to wrest the kid from the Tramp – utterly heart-wrenching.
Never one for subtlety, this climax involves Chaplin’s Tramp engaging in knock-out brawls and running over rooftops in pursuit of a departing orphanage truck that is carrying his kid. It’s a big scene, and Chaplin makes sure you are immersed through a throttling, horn-heavy score and startling visuals, such as him leaping off a low-hanging roof onto the passing truck.
Now, the ultimate impact of this scene may hinge somewhat on who you are. I personally can imagine it leaving some people cold, especially with its simplistic depiction of mustache-twirling social service workers. Even those calloused and immune to The Kid’s charms however should find its climax to be a visceral cinematic moment, filled with indicators of a master at work. Some of these include the frenzied editing, which creates an exciting sense of pacing. Chaplin’s pantomime is also brilliant, as is the blocking, specifically the evasive maneuvers the Tramp takes to pursue the creeps who have stolen his child (which highlight Chaplin’s considerable physicality).
The most salient feature of this scene though also applies to the film as a whole. It clearly illustrates Chaplin’s central preoccupation with the trials of a bumbling albeit goodhearted every man menaced by hostile entities of the state system (here shown to be social services and the police). This dynamic of state indifference and antagonism is something gamely taken up by The Kid, and was memorably expanded upon in the Chaplin films that followed.
Modern Times (1936)
Shot a full fifteen years after The Kid, and bookending Chaplin’s Little Tramp period, is 1936’s Modern Times. Described by Chaplin as a satire of the industrial age, Modern Times features the Tramp quite literally being nearly broken on the wheels of modern capitalism.
The film has no strong, clear storyline and certainly doesn’t feel as tight as The Kid (barring that film’s protracted dream sequence). Instead, it almost functions like a series of vignettes, with the Tramp taking one step forward and then two steps back as he attempts to survive the industrial age. Joining him on this journey is the stunning Paulette Goddard (who would become Chaplin’s wife), whose character is only referred to as “The Gamin,” and who is as desperate and isolated as Chaplin’s vagabond. In one of her first roles, Goddard projects a fierce, energized presence. She matches Chaplin’s intensity easily, although she can’t equal his nuance or range.
Like The Kid, Modern Times is a film where the struggle for survival is compounded by authoritarian figures of the state, who are totally apathetic to the trials of the working poor. Additionally, the Tramp must contend with the hostile nature of factory life, which demoralizes him, even going so far as to drive him to a nervous breakdown in one scene.
The way Chaplin and production designer Charles D. Hall create the factory work environments is truly inspired, with beautifully stylized sets composed of hulking machinery and gigantic wheels and cogs. The blocking of each scene is excellent, with the rigid routine of the factory workers feeling perfectly-timed. This is something that carries on throughout the film’s later scenes as well. Chaplin is able to draw upon his physical gifts for a virtuoso sequence in a department store (where the Tramp roller skates while blindfolded) and during the film’s climax at a dining hall, which contains dozens of extras.
One of the most interesting aspects of Modern Times though is not what is on the screen, rather what is off of it. When it was shot in the early 30s, “talkies” had already been a part of Hollywood productions for over five years. This made Chaplin’s decision to film Modern Times as only a partial talkie all the more audacious. This decision was the correct one. Not only is the film’s sound design a unique experience to listen to, but it successfully preserves the nature of the Tramp character. It also helps the film remain congruent with the story’s theme of defying the modern age.
This cuts to the core of what made Chaplin films like The Kid and Modern Times so special. Because, while both films display an expert grasp on aesthetics and are genuinely humorous and poignant, there are many other filmmakers who could point to similar achievements in their own bodies of work. Chaplin, however, continues to loom large over the medium because one can feel a singularity of vision, percolating at the heart of every level of his films.
This is felt even more powerfully in Modern Times than it is in The Kid. Although missing that earlier work’s lean sense of urgency, Modern Times is a work of startling imagination and ambition. It is filled with classic imagery and sounds, such as the site of the Tramp being pulled through the internal gears of a factory machine, and a clever broaching of themes that are indeed (don’t kill me) immortal.